Dreading studio interference on his first comic book project, Suicide Squad makeup and hair designer Alessandro Bertolazzi found none, overcoming the challenges of trying something new, and receiving his first Oscar nomination for his contributions. Working with director David Ayer on several projects—from visceral war film Fury to the upcoming Netflix-backed Bright—Bertolazzi finds great freedom in this collaborative pairing, compelled by Ayer’s willingness to explore creative avenues that others might not. Coming on to the project with limited knowledge of the DC Universe, Bertolazzi did his due diligence in research, but ultimately cast it aside, aspiring to find a new take on well-trodden material by taking a more distanced approach.
Speaking with Deadline from the Bright set, Bertolazzi divulges tricks of his trade, touching on his organic approach to rain-drenched, grimy sequences, and his ability to find creative possibilities in everyday items.
You’ve never worked on a film based on comic book material before. What drew you to Suicide Squad?
Principally, it was the big challenge, to do something I never have done before—a superhero movie. It was totally new for me, because for example, when David Ayer called me, I was little bit worried. I said, “Oh my God, I’m not sure if I’m the right guy for that show.” But I trust 100 percent in David, and then, “Okay, let’s do it.” At the least, they fire me, they send me back home.
Most challenging, of course was the Joker. Everybody does the Joker. The last Joker was amazing, so I was completely… What can I do now? Of course, that was the challenge. Not to be so presumptuous to do something completely different, because nobody does different. What is different? Everybody already does everything, but do it in the right way.
How much research did you do into the DC Universe to prepare?
They provided me all the DC comics, and that didn’t help, because everything is already done. I can’t make exactly the copy, so we started to do something completely different—not completely different. Something right for the movie.
Before I started the movie, when David called me, I said, “Let’s see what is this Suicide Squad, because I have no idea,” and then I checked the internet, and I found a web TV station, people already talking about the makeup. I said, “Hold on, they already did it?” They were talking about the movie, saying probably the makeup should be like that, and the new Joker should be that. So that doesn’t help, what makes me so anxious. I was really terrified.
I kept the decision to start completely from zero. Like, don’t think they already exist. The color of [the hair] of Harley Quinn and the green hair of Joker—these are the only two we started from. All of the rest were going to be invented.
Having worked together with David Ayer on several movies now—including the upcoming Bright—how would you describe your collaborative relationship?
Look, I don’t think another director like David exists. He’s allowed me to do everything. You want to make all characters we do real—it has to be real. It’s beautiful, it’s interesting.
When you do something fantastic, there is an edge, a perfect edge, and then I saw it, the edge. This edge means you do something super extreme, but still real. If you pass this edge, then this personage, this stuff becomes fake. This was how I feel [it was] in Suicide Squad—in Joker, for example. All the characters, they are real. It’s just the borderline—if you pass this line, they become fake. I love that.
Outside of the specific comic book references, you had the worlds of gangsters and the military to work off of.
It’s partially correct. Every time when I start to do something, I have to build something imaginary—like a big, huge castle that. On all movies—also Bright, and Fury, and everything—I ask for a big, huge room. This room has to be square, possibly, and I want the room full of paper, and then I start the prep.
Everything I found in the research [came] completely out of the blue. I start to stick [items] to the wall, I buy stuff in the grocery. Everything, I say, “Oh, look at that beautiful piece of wood, that’s cool. Let’s take it.” And then, you start feeling the room—you start creating an imaginary space.
In this imaginary space, it’s an experiment. You start to understand. [Ayers] loved this room, and normally when we finish working during the day, finish the rehearsal with the actors, he always comes into my room, and we start looking at pictures on the wall and say, “Oh my god, look at it, beautiful.” I fill them with pictures. I make the lines, like a criminal case.
We start building like that and believe me—magically, I don’t know how, everything starts to be connected—like the picture of David Bowie, for the Joker, because for me, the best Joker ever is David Bowie.
Then, we will bring a picture double, who will start to make tests. We start to add the [hair] color, because you have to do it. I can’t plan my job sitting at my table at my home, drawing. You have to think 3D, put the finger on the mark, and then you start to feel.
Do you generally find actors to be collaborators in your process? How was it working with the Suicide Squad cast?
They enjoyed this method, because they made it. I said to Jared Leto, I said, “Okay, that’s the Joker.” If you don’t feel this is the Joker, I did something wrong. You have to feel it. It’s on me.
I don’t want to be celebrated; I don’t want to do beautiful makeup. I want the actors to feel like they’re the characters. Sometimes, I shake the actors—”Hey, hey. Stay with me, stay with me. We have to do this job. Don’t leave me alone.” “Yeah, you’re right, you’re right.” And then we made it—we made it together.
So basically, I have to be relatively sharp, but at the same time, we have to be alone, in the silence. And then sometimes, when I do something deep and complicated, I really need the actor to believe it. I’m lucky—I get the best actor ever.
What’s the range of time actors would sit with you in the chair on a given shooting day, having their makeup and hair done?
That was the biggest worry about production, because in Suicide Squad, I wanted to do everything myself. I can’t delegate somebody different to do Joker, to do Harley Quinn, to do the witch. That was my amazing collaborator—Giorgio Gregorini, who is also nominated—for the hair. And [head makeup artist] Marta Roggero: It was like we were working with six hands in the same face, and then we only had three hours to do everything.
It was very impressive. I started with the wigs, and then I started with the makeup, then Martha started with the body, then back for the wig then back again to makeup. Some two or three hours of makeup for each actor, it’s a lot when they are ready, all together. Believe me, it was a nightmare. They said to me, “You have to slow down. You’re gonna die if you don’t slow down.” But there’s no way. If you see the movie, you feel that.
Were you involved in creating the tattoos for the movie?
All the tattoos were made by Rob Coutts. Because we needed a tattoo artist, we discussed it with David. And then we had a range of tattoos, and we tried to apply the tattoos. I applied the tattoos, and we saw, yes, no, this is too much, this is [too little], and blah blah blah. It was an really important part of the characters.
But the rest was just makeup—we didn’t use any prosthetics, apart from the Croc. On the whole movie, I wanted to do practical makeup—just practical, real makeup. When we’re talking about makeup, like in the tradition, people say, “Oh, you’re doing it old school.” Don’t use these words with me; “old school” sounds filthy. A respect for tradition is the only way to make a transformation and act great in the job. There is no other way; you have to know that.
The Joker has many layers of color, veins, bruises, cuts, dirtiness, sweatiness. Shimmering— he’s dirty.
For Harley Quinn and the Joker, did you ever dye hair, or were wigs used in both cases?
Sometimes, for Joker, we used a wig, sometimes it was his own hair dyed. We chose a different shade of green to make something different. It can’t be just green hair. Then, the top and the sides and the back, they are completely different.
Harley Quinn always had a wig. This is the only detail that looks like a cartoon, because the wig has to look like the drawings. It’s the only thing that has to look fake. For that reason, we don’t use a super beautiful wig.
And then also, the design, it has to be like that—you know, the two stops for the pigtail, blue and red. This is rubber—you know how old men have [canes], and they walk, and they have a [piece of] rubber in the bottom, right? Perfect—we used that once we found it. “Look at that, this is cool”. We bought these 50 cent [pieces] of rubber that looked like cups, we cut, we made a hole, and we used that. It was cool, see?
This is what I like—to use organic situations, organic stuff. It changes the story, changes the energy, changes the point of view, but retains the energy. I’m like a vampire. I use the stuff that already exists with life, and I change its life, but it keeps its energy. [Laughs] It’s so challenging, but I only know that way.
What is it like filming scenes involving dirt or rain, where the makeup is running down Harley Quinn’s face?
I am not a believer in the continuity—I believe in evolution during the shooting. Everything changes. I love it: I can modify; I never stop. I would always stand on set with Joker, with everybody, to add stuff, remove, change, make it more dirty. And if it sometimes could get wrong in the rain, or messed, it was good. The wind in Toronto, during the day, it would start crackling. That is the best—that’s what’s real. People don’t understand that. [Laughs]